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The Queen Street West district in downtown Toronto is often referred to as one of the trendiest neighborhoods in the world. Hip retailers like Lululemon, Brandy Melville, Kit + Ace, and Frank & Oak have stores dotted along the way, and there’s a plethora of swanky bars and restaurants, art galleries, and vintage stores, too. Both locals and tourists alike recognize the area’s vibe as young, eclectic, and intriguing, and just about every fashion trend is strikingly visible.
Which is why Hector Vijil, a 28-year-old El Salvador native and Toronto resident, thought it was peculiar when he noticed everyone in the area suddenly wearing the exact same pair of craggy leather boots a few months ago. Vijil, who works as a manager at Shoes.com, knows his footwear trends pretty well and had seen these boots around before, but now they were really everywhere. He quickly learned that the boots — elastic-sided and ankle-high, with branded tags popping out of the front and back — were made by Blundstone, the rugged Australian footwear company.
“Literally one in every three people are wearing Blundstones on Queen Street, and they are all over Montreal, too,” he says. “I think it’s become a favorite the way Vans and Converse are. What’s interesting, though, is that the guys and girls wear the exact same boot but mold them differently into their style.”
The boots Vijil kept seeing everywhere — which he has now, too, of course — are Blundstone’s original 500, or some sort of variation of them (the brand makes pretty similar versions of the same boot, but tweaks it slightly for different models). The reason he finds the boot’s ubiquity so intriguing is because Blundstone is typically associated with farmers down under and outdoorsy beatnik-types; it’s certainly not the boot of choice for fashionable folks.
And yet the 147-year-old Australian brand has been all over the past few seasons, even becoming the apple of fashion retailers’ eyes. Barneys, for example, started carrying Blundstone boots last fall. Tom Kalenderian, an executive vice president and general merchandise manager for menswear, tells Racked they’re now a bona fide favorite.
“We’ve always known about Blundstone, as it is an iconic brand, but we started seeing more and more men wearing them on the street, which prompted us to try them,” says Kalenderian. “It’s definitely more of a contemporary customer, looking for a casual boot.”
Nordstrom, too, just started selling Blundstone boots in stores and online, where they’re nestled comfortably next to Valentino and Gucci. So far, customers who’ve bought the product have been leaving hilarious reviews you don’t typically associate as on-brand Nordstrom, like: “I run a farm and ride horses, and these boots look adorable with skinny jeans to run errands but also hold up if I need to run out to the barn or jump on a horse for a ride.”
J.Crew had been stocking Blundstone through a showroom distributor since 2011, but brought the boots on directly through the brand in 2013. Most recently, Blundstone boots were prominently featured in J.Crew’s November style guide, promising that the boots are “a hit with farmers down under — and now discerning guys downtown.” Frank Muytjens, J.Crew’s head of men’s design, says Blundstones are his “go-to-hiking shoe” but maintains they are still pretty stylish — or “Farmer Chic,” as the staff at ADAMAH, the farming fellowship at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, CT, calls it.
“I think they added something that we didn’t have in our shoe assortment before here at J.Crew,” says Muytjens. “They’re lightweight, and I love that you can just slip them on. No fumbling with laces. To me, it’s just a design classic. Something you got to have.”
Blundstone, which marks the price for its boots at around $170, has been making leather boots since 1870, and the company has been owned by several Australian families over the last century. It always remained a niche product — a favorite of farmers and factory workers due to its durable leather and rubber bottom. But over the years, it’s expanded beyond the farm.
“If you would have told me ten years ago we’d be in Barneys, selling next to all those luxury brands, I would have shook my head and said ‘probably not,’” Steve Gunn, Blundstone’s current CEO, tells Racked, laughing during a phone interview from the company’s headquarters on the Australian island of Tasmania.
Gunn marks 2007 as the pivotal year for the company. To cut costs, Blundstone moved manufacturing operations from Australia to India and Thailand. Even though the brand had succeeded for decades by running on the marketing slogan “Australian for Boots,” the shift helped the company cut costs and pivot funds towards more growth-oriented strategies, like working to penetrate other markets. Over the last ten years, Gunn says, Blundstone has entered and completely exploded in countries like Canada, Italy, and Sweden. Blundstone declined to share exact figures with Racked, but confirmed that sales have doubled over the past five years. The company is headed toward selling a whopping three million pairs of shoes annually. In Israel, which has become Blundstone’s second-largest market after Australia, “Blundstone boots have basically become a uniform,” Gunn declares.
“Basically every Israeli has a pair — men, women, trendy teens,” says Avital Kahane, a 10th-grader living in Israel’s Bet Shemesh. “They make every outfit look cute and stylish.”
“It's a look that screams ‘I'm extremely practical and don't like to make an effort with my footwear, but I still want to give off the impression of being well-dressed,’” Slone says. “It just gives people the impression that you're prepared for the weather, and you value comfort and practicality over precious self-expression.”
Kalenderian from Barneys, on the other hand, says Blundstone’s rise can be pegged to today’s unprecedented demand for Chelsea boots, a highly sought-after style.
“We added Blundstone to satisfy the growing trend in rugged Chelsea boots on a rubber sole, and apparently it is the original Chelsea boot,” Kalenderian says. “The reemergence of the brand is similar to when boat shoes were trending up and Sperry was the leader.”
Either way, the brand didn’t become front and center for some of fashion’s favorite retailers out of sheer luck. Gunn tells Racked that Blundstone only really saw movement on the fashion front once Blundstone started rolling out shoes specifically for women last summer in the US, and in other markets over the last two to three years.
Previously, Blundstone heralded itself as a unisex brand. Men and women alike bought the same pair of 550s, 510s, or 561s, but the sizing went by men’s, and so women had to go down a size or two. Once Blundstone started making boots specifically for women, Gunn says, the brand really found an in with women, especially on its e-commerce site that launched last year (since Nordstrom, J.Crew, and Barneys still sell Blundstone as a men’s shoe). The New York Times’s Thursday Styles section has given Blundstone a nod of approval: “If they’re built for the wild expanses of Tasmania, they’ll do on the mean streets of New York,” the paper quipped last month. Even David Beckham, the Sexiest Man Alive, has a pair.
Gunn initially was shocked at how much luxury customers liked the boot, especially given Blundstone’s reputation with farmers and labor workers; as the Times of Israel reported this summer, before trend-chasing Israeli teens and fashion bloggers in Tel Aviv started wearing them, Blundstones were “purchased by people from moshav or kibbutz cooperatives, who figured out how useful they were when moving from the cowshed or factory floor to muddy fields.”
“I bought a pair on Amazon in 2015 because I was sick of my ugly winter boots, and I love them,” says Alix Diaconis, a video director at Racked’s sister site The Verge. “They’re comfortable and not bulky, and I can wear them in all types of weather. I have friends who have worn them for about as long as me, but they look super worn-down. I take very good care of them and polish them on the reg because I think they are beautiful and want them to last as long as possible.”
“I didn't think I'd get much play from my Blundstones in my typically more classic, trendy closet, yet they quickly ended up on repeat,” adds Tamika Auwai, a Toronto-based marketing consultant and Blundstone fan. “I'm usually balancing mom life with growing my business, so life is an adventure. The easy slip-on style plus rough-and-tumble design work when I'm out with the kids, and they also add the perfect relaxed vibe when I'm in the city seeing clients.”
Now that the brand has the full attention of stylish shoppers — the 519 Boot that was prominently displayed in J.Crew’s November style guide is totally sold out, and popular Google searches with the boots include “outfits with Blundstones” and “Blundstones with skirts” — Gunn says the company is continuing to branch out. Last year, it debuted a collaboration with Italian motorcycle company Ducati, and it unveiled the boots at Pitti Uomo, the international men’s fashion show held in Florence every year, of all places. Following the strategy of luxury outerwear brand Canada Goose, Blundstone beefed up its presence at the Sundance Film Festival last year with gifting and sponsored events, and will be back at the festival again in 2017. Gunn says the brand is also in talks with more fashion retailers, some small and some big; while he wouldn’t confirm which, he did hint they are similar to Barneys, so our bets are on Net-a-Porter.
Even with all the exposure, Gunn says the brand is treading carefully. Over the next two years, Blundstone will roll out more women’s styles, but it doesn’t want to get too trendy. Blundstone boots are, after all, voted “the best ranch/farm boot out there” by Sierra Trading Post. While, yes, Blundstone would be delighted to receive the same sort of buzz from the fashion crowd that its Aussie cousin Ugg gets, Gunn wants to keep Blundstone “a classic.”
“Our boots certainly look good with high-end clothing, but I don’t think we want to see the brand headed in that direction because we’ve always had a broad appeal,” says Gunn. “We don’t want to be a fashion brand because today’s fashion is tomorrow’s history, and our product is everlasting.”
On that “everlasting” note Gunn is exaggerating, but only slightly. In Slone’s case, she wore her Blundstones for six years straight — all through winter’s rain, snow, and slush — until she had to toss them because they were leaking. She went looking for another pair last year but she didn’t love the way they fit the second time around, and ultimately decided to move on to a different brand. Trendy shoppers, as we know, are fickle. Farmers, probably less so. Good thing Blundstone can now rely on both.